Tuesday, 18 July 2017

An interview with...John Henry Nicholson

On 24th June 2016, John Henry Nicholson made history when becoming the youngest ever driver to win the Hurricane Pace Final at Musselburgh.  At 16, he catapulted himself into the spotlight as one of the country's up and coming drivers, and his cool and calculated drive on board Cochise won him the Tim Tetrick-sponsored Drive of the Year Award, voted for by the general public and celebrated at the annual BHRC and STAGBI awards evening in February of this year.

With Cochise winning the Hurrican Pace Final (Bill Cardno photo)

John Henry trains horses alongside his mother, Georgina, who also drives occasionally. Dad, John, is a regular driver and sister Savannah competes in the saddle races.  The family have plenty of racehorses, as well as broodmares and stallions, most notably The Firepan, and breed horses with the prefix Evenwood.  That's right, this family is responsible for breeding World Record holder, Evenwood Sonofagun!

In the build up to this year's event at Musselburgh, I took some time to chat with John Henry about last year's phenomenal victory, the opportunities that have come his way since and his plans for this season and the future.

Let’s go back to 12 months ago – talk us through your first visit to Musselburgh as a driver.
I had three drives at Musselburgh last year; it was my first time driving there as I’d only started driving the year before [2015].  I won heat and final of the Hurricane Pace with Cochise and also a heat with Silver Alert.  My mum had said before the meeting that if I won heats with both of them then she would come out of retirement to drive in the final!

And how did that go down with your dad?!
Well, it was all agreed beforehand and that was that!  She hadn’t driven for a couple of years and the decision was made before we even got to Musselburgh.

John Henry (second left) lines up for the final with mum, Georgina (fourth left) (Bill Cardno photo)
Not only was it your first visit but weren’t you also a C Class driver at the time?
Yes, I’d won with Rhyds Beijing at Haugh Field and with Silver Alert at Kilnsey the summer before, and then Jasper Hill won for me at Hellifield a week before Musselburgh.  The three wins at Musselburgh tipped me over into a B Class driver.

What was going through your mind in the final stages of the Hurricane Pace Final?
I was calm, I knew I had to keep him going so I was focussed on that.  All the way from the two furlong marker all I could hear was screaming from the stands, the atmosphere coming up there is unreal.  Then I could see my dad and Savannah shouting on the rail and gesturing to keep going.  When I hit the line though, my mind just went blank.  I actually said ‘what do I do now?’; I was completely lost in the moment.  I just didn’t know what to do!

Did you think you had a chance of winning?
The horse had worked well the week before, his trainer had brought him down to me to work him out and afterwards I told my dad what time he’d done and we knew it was alright.  Going into the final I was quietly confident because he’d won in a good time and done it easily, although I had to stand away from everyone else before the race because I felt sick with nerves and couldn’t speak to anyone.

The drive on Cochise in the final was nominated for BHRC Drive of the Year 2016 and ultimately went on to receive the highest number of votes – what did you think of that?
When the drives were shortlisted and the voting opened, I thought it might be close between myself and James [Haythornthwaite].  None of us knew who the winner was when we attended the awards night in February though so I was really nervous on the night.  When I found out that I was the winner and that I’d received such a large share of the votes, it was great.  I was able to collect the award sponsored by Tim Tetrick with my family there.

Collecting his Drive of the Year award

Not only did you receive a gift pack from world-renowned driver Tim Tetrick, but you also got to meet him?
Yes I did.  I went to America in May and while I was there I met John Campbell and Tim Tetrick so I had my photo taken with them both.  Tim said he’d seen the videos shortlisted for the award and was really chatty, although they were getting ready to go out and drive so we didn’t have long to talk.

I went over to visit my good friend Jeffrey Greenberg in New York and he arranged for me to have a drive at Yonkers in an amateur race.  Before the race all of the other drivers were giving me advice and they were all really welcoming.  I drove a trotter called Windsun Fireball in the race, he was drawn 8 so there wasn’t much I could do other than take back for the first part of the race.  Going down the back for the last time I pulled out and followed Paul Minore who had been giving me loads of advice beforehand, and I ended up beating him by a nose for third.  It was my first time driving a trotter in a race! (Read the Harnesslink report, giving John Henry a brief mention, here).

I also got to warm up a horse at the Meadowlands which was a great experience, and I saw Huntsville jogging at Goshen.  While I was there I visited the Hall of Fame and spoke to a driver who told me that winning is 50% horse, 25% luck and 25% driver and I believe that’s true.

Warming up at the Meadowlands

Meeting Tim Tetrick
Meeting John Campbell

Since you won at Musselburgh, do people talk to you more now?
Definitely; I’ve gained more respect from people and I’m getting more catch drives.  Not that many, because we have maybe 10 or 12 horses running at meetings some weeks but if I can fit them in then I take them.  Sometimes my mum and dad will drive two of ours so that I can take an outside drive in the same race.  It’s important to make time for people where I can.

How has the 2017 season been for you so far?
Things didn’t start so well as we had a virus badly in the stable and all the hard work seemed pointless, I was worried and didn’t think we would get there but we’re coming back into form after winning at Binchester, and I drove the heat and final winner, All Fired Up, as well.  We had another couple of winners at Wolsingham last weekend too.  It’s the right time to come into form with Musselburgh next weekend!

Winning the final on All Fired Up at Binchester, July 9th 2017
Which horses are you looking forward to driving at Musselburgh this year?
All of them, but my favourite two at the moment are All Fired Up and my aged trotter, Tenor D’Ouville.  I’m looking forward to driving them; they’re both good horses and stayers which will suit the track.  I just need a bit of luck!

Now that you’ve won Musselburgh, do you have any other goals for the future?
I take every win as I go.  You’re trying to win everything so you just go out and do it again and again.  I love driving and winning a race is a bonus, but winning at Musselburgh is different class, it’s something else.

Who is your driving idol?
John Campbell by far.  I sit and watch videos of him all the time.  It was great to meet him in America.  We’ve got two race carts from him which are arriving just before Musselburgh so we’ll get to use them there.

What about your parents; have they influenced your driving style?
Well I’ve got my mum’s quiet hands but I’ve got my dad’s finishing hands.  I can get a horse home but I can also sit and wait.  It’s the perfect combination.  Look, if I’ve got the engine I feel like I can pilot anything, but you need the engine!

Family affair - John Henry (centre) with parents John & Georgina, and sister Savannah (all in blue)
Do you have any advice for the young drivers competing in the C Class race at Musselburgh this year, which for many will be their first time driving at the track?
Just keep cool, don’t rush.  You have to keep your cool.  Watch when you’re going over the road and just wait.  It opens up on the home straight for you.  Just go with the group into the straight and it opens up for you.

We know you’re busy training horses every day with your mum and going racing, but what do you do for fun in your spare time?
Chase women!


Thank you to John Henry for taking time out of his very busy schedule, training and racing horses and chasing women (he was being serious!), to answer my questions.  Just over 12 months ago I only knew the Nicholson family by name; the victory in the Hurricane Pace Final, and the subsequent reporting I did on the landmark win, sparked a friendship which will undoubtedly last forever.  The four of them encapsulate everything that is good about harness racing; their passion, commitment, good humour, graciousness in defeat and exhilaration in victory...they make being a part of this sport all the more enjoyable.

It's hard to believe that John Henry is only 17 years old.  Despite claiming to be nervous in various situations, he comes across as cool, calm and collected, with an air of confidence that could never be mistaken for arrogance.  He's very cheeky, that I can say!  On the track, he doesn't look out of place, nor inexperienced.  I firmly believe that he has a very bright future ahead of him.

To the young drivers who will be lining up on Saturday, 22nd July, behind the starter at Musselburgh for possibly the first time in their driving careers - one of you is about to experience something unlike anything you've ever experienced before.  Good luck and most of all, ENJOY IT.

#1 Groom

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